Wednesday, November 24, 2010

National No Homework Week: A Revolution to Reclaim Families and Children

National No Homework Week... why not give it a shot?
I propose we designate the week of February 7th to the 11th of 2011 as National No Homework Week.  During this week, teachers will voluntarily suspend the giving of homework.  There shall be one exception- teachers may require ONE 15 minute session during the week where students will be required to have a conversation with a family member.

Why would a teacher suggest we stop assigning homework for a week?  It's an experiment... an unorthodox solution to a growing problem.  I've been teaching for twelve years.  During that time, I have noticed a trend.  In ever-growing numbers, students are refusing to do homework.  As most teachers of middle school or high school students can attest, many students, regardless of ability, do not do all assigned homework.  Before I explore my theory of why this is occurring, let me tell a story.

Dr. Thomas Franken is a cross-country coach.  He has been coaching the Rampart High School runners for over twenty years. Dr. Franken also has a Ph.D. in exercise science. 

When Dr. Franken started coaching, his typical training regimen he prescribed to his athletes consisted of running approximately three miles per day.  He applied his exercise science knowledge to develop unique, interesting workouts for his athletes.  Under his guidance, Dr. Franken produced many state champions and several prominent college runners.  He even produced two Olympic athletes. 

As the years wore on, Dr. Franken's routine changed.  Other coaches started applying different methods.  The competition increased.  In response, Dr. Franken increased his athletes' workload.  They started working out longer.  His three mile workout increased to five, then seven, then ten.  Today, it approaches thirteen miles per day.  He even added off-season running and weight training.  The goal was simple- he had to prepare his athletes to compete in an ever-changing world of competitive cross country running. 

Over the years, Dr. Franken noticed a change in his athletes.  In the beginning, his athletes were extremely motivated.  They would get excited about practice and eagerly gave their full effort every single day.  They were hungry.

As time passed, Dr. Franken's athletes became less excited.  They didn't have the same vigor they once had.  His colleagues would be subjected to his complaints about this curious change.  He would blame the kids.  "These kids today are just lazy! he would exclaim.  "They're not willing to put in the effort like they used to.  Don't they know they need to work hard to compete!" 

He would routinely blame parents for not pushing their kids more.  He would blame video games and television. "These kids would seemingly rather sit on the couch and do nothing than become winners.!"

His athletes, even those that showed immense natural talent, got slower and slower.  Many would quit mid season.  Some wouldn't even come out for the team.  He didn't understand this change.  After all, he coached Olympians!

He would obsessively spend his time trying to make his kids faster.  He would add new routines.  New workouts. He even started tampering with their diet.  For a brief time, he considered suggesting dietary supplements.  Anything to make these kids more motivated, anything to recapture the magic he saw from generations past.

Dr. Franken was getting fed up with excuses.  He was getting fed up with the laziness.  He was starting to imagine the demise of society as we know it... Americans used to be so creative and hard-working.  Now look at them.  He would shake his head in disgust.  He was about to give up on this generation.  He was about the turn his back on the very kids that he used to passionately love coaching.  Then his world changed.

It started innocently enough.  On a cloudy day in mid-October, Dr. Franken was in the last fifteen minutes of his three hour workout he scientifically designed to produce great runners.  It took him weeks to construct.  He pored over all the latest research, and included elements from many fields.  This workout on the track was supposed to develop the end-of-the race kick- that last burst of energy that will help runners surge to victory.  Dr. Franken even called it the victory drill. 

Jim Thompson was a mediocre sophomore runner that was not living up to his potential.  Jim had been running through the workout as he did every day.  Suddenly he stopped and sat down on the track.  An irate Dr. Franken stormed over to Jim.  Years of pent-up frustration spilled out as he began screaming about the laziness of kids today.  In his fit of rage, he let everything out.  Jim became the proxy for all the runners Dr. Franken saw over the years that were not willing to live up to their potential. 

All the while, Jim sat silently staring at a small crack in the track.  Dr. Franken ended his fanatical rant by screaming "And what about you, Jim?  You have the most talent on this team, but you just aren't willing to work hard enough!  What is wrong with you?!?"

Jim looked up at Dr. Franken.  In a low, defeated voice he said "Coach, I'm just tired."  Jim slowly got to his feet and walked off the track.

Dr. Franken's first instinct was to follow Jim and angrily lecture him about the value of working hard; developing the character to work past adversity.  He wanted to scream about how he would never amount to anything in life if he wasn't willing to work for it.  He wanted to force Jim to realize he was doing all this for HIS benefit; to make HIM a great runner... how could he be so ungrateful?!?

But he didn't.  Something inside stopped him.  At first it was a little twinge; something just enough to freeze him there on the track.  That twinge was the beginning of a revelation.  For the first time, he considered the workout from Jim's perspective.  As he started to see the situation from Jim's eyes, it was as if a tidal wave of revelation enveloped him.  Jim wasn't lazy.  He wasn't ungrateful.  He wasn't a bad kid or had bad parents.  He wasn't part of a doomed generation.  Jim was simply tired.

Over the years, Dr. Franken had unwittingly overtrained his kids.  Back in the old days, his athletes were hungry because they were kept in a perpetual state of wanting more.  In response, he slowly increased what he had them do.  At some point, they were no longer hungry.  They lost that valuable edge that keeps us motivated.  Dr. Franken continued the trend and did more.  He had good intentions- he was trying to help them.  As he continued o feed them a diet of more and more running, they started showing symptoms of overtraining.  They lost motivation.  They felt drained.  They had a sudden, unexplainable drop in performance.  They lost enthusiasm.  They became moody and irritable.  Some even resorted to "acting out" behaviors like destroying a bathroom at the track. 

He realized these kids weren't a doomed generation that had a set of messed-up values.  They were just overworked.  Running was no longer fun.  More importantly, running was no longer exciting.  It ate up most of their free time.  They no longer had time to interact with their family, hang out with friends, go on their own adventures or explore new things, or just be kids.

The epiphany hit him like a sledgehammer. 

He knew exactly what had to be done.  He immediately cut his workouts from three hours to 45 minutes.  Within two days, his athletes came to life.  Suddenly they were smiling.  Suddenly they were excited.  Suddenly they were running fast.  That season, Jim went from being an underperforming seemingly troubled kid to an outgoing, joyous conference champion.  Why?  He was given the gift of time, which gave him the freedom to grow as a runner and as a person.

Dr. Franken learned a valuable lesson.  It was a lesson his fancy Ph.D. in exercise couldn't teach him.  More is never the answer; it is often the cause of the problem.  The human spirit needs freedom to blossom.

Listening to many teachers today saddens me.  They sound exactly like Dr. Franken.  Kids today are underachieving.  I agree with this statement.  In my experience as a teacher, the kids I see today do not perform as well as the kids I taught at the beginning of my career.  Seemingly bright kids with tons of potential are failing at an alarming rate.  While I agree with the trend, I strongly disagree with the supposed cause and common solutions.

The kids' work ethic is commonly blamed.  Parents are blamed.  Video games, music, television, fast food, friends, and the Internet are often blamed.  Just like Dr. Franken, we look for some difference between today's student and yesterday's student. 

The solutions are pretty typical, too.  Calls to the parents.  Increasing the weight of homework.  Coming up with elaborate systems of rewards and punishments.  Trying new teaching techniques.  We even try technology.

Does any of it work?

No.  In fact, the more we try, the worse the problem becomes. 

The problem we face as educators is the exact same problem Dr. Franken faced- we become so focused on the goal of trying to help kids achieve more, we lose sight of their perspective.  We are inundated with pressures to teach more.  More standards.  More tests.  More accountability.  The push for performance pushes us to increase our expectations.  We keep giving kids more and more.  Since the school day has a finite time, we are forced to assign homework.  It seems like a logical solution, just like Dr. Franken assumed more running would make the kids faster.

In reality, kids are overwhelmed.  I hear it from kids.  I hear it from parents.  In a typical high school, kids will have five to seven classes.  If each teacher assigns 15 minutes of homework, that kid is spending 75-90 minutes per day doing more work on top of their school day.  What about the teachers that assign an hour or more?  It's a "tragedy of the commons effect"... we think our homework doesn’t make a difference because it will only take a few minutes.  We ignore the fact that the student has many other teachers all thinking the exact same thing.  Add in any extracurricular and school monopolizes almost all of their time.  When do they have time to bond with their family?  When do they have time to explore their environment?  When do they have time to be a kid?  The answer- they don't. 
The generally-accepted guideline, supported by organizations such as the NEA, recommend a limit of 10 minutes of homework per night per grade level.  For a high school senior, this equates to TWO HOURS of homework every night.  This, of course, assumes all teachers follow this guideline.

There is a tremendous price we pay by piling work on kids.  We have created a generation of workaholics that impulsively fill their time with work.  Why?  That's what they learned in their 12 years of schooling.  Is it a surprise that parents today would rather be working than spending time with their kids?  For more on that idea, see my post about schools being the cause of their own problems.

In regards to homework specifically, the logic doesn't always make sense.  Some teachers claim students need the repetition.  Why?  If they understand the material, there's no need to continue practicing.  If they don't get it, how are they supposed to complete the homework without having someone there to help?  Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of homework, presents a great argument in this article

For those that require more evidence than my own observations, there is supporting research.  Ellen Galinsky, Stacy Kim, and James Bond (yes, I laughed at the last one, too) of the Families and Work Institute conducted a study of American work habits in 2001.  Here are some findings.  When people are overworked, they
  • make more mistakes,
  • are less successful in personal relationships,
  • do not take good care of themselves (can you say obesity epidemic?),
  • lose sleep, have increased anger towards work and supervisors (or school and teachers), and
  • feel more resentment toward people that do not work as hard (which manifests itself when one classmate sees another that has "checked out" already)
The study also notes some of the negative implications, such as:
  • less workplace safety due to increased mistakes and higher levels of resentment and anger,
  • significantly lower levels of morale,
  • More "acting out" behaviors (which should be of special interest to teachers and administrators),
  • decreased performance (which explains why pushing more studying results in generally lower overall test scores),
  • more sick days and truancy due to high levels of stress.
Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of burnout for several decades.  See how many of these classic burnout symptoms you see in your students, then attribute to some internal trait:
  • Neglecting one's own needs, both physical and emotional,
  • increased levels of stress coupled with an inability to attribute the source (which results in gereneralized anxiety),
  • family, friends, and hobbies are neglected,
  • cynicism and aggression increase,
  • social withdrawal,
  • increase in substance abuse,
  • life becomes a series of mechanized behaviors,
  • depression, and
  • rebellion from sources of authority.
Convinced yet?  I am.

As teachers, we need to get over the idea that our subject matter is so important we need kids to work on it outside of school.  If we don't have time in the class, we need to reduce the amount of material or develop more efficiency when teaching the material.  We have to understand the idea that we need to work smarter, not work more. It's time to allow kids to have some free time.  Let's stop burning them out by monopolizing all their free time.  Let's let kids be kids.

I bet if enough of us do this, we'll see the same results Dr. Franken saw.  The "laziness" will disappear.  Disruptive behavior will dramatically decrease.  The enthusiasm will build.  Our students will become hungry again, just like they used to be a generation ago. 

What do we have to lose?  Will kids' lives be ruined if they don't learn every vocab word from a chapter?  Are they destined to a life of homelessness and unemployment if they don't write an extra 200 words in the persuasive essay?  Will your school fail your state's standardized test and miss your Annual Yearly Progress goals?  Not at all.

This is a one week experiment that could revolutionize education.  It would give kids a change to bond with their families.  It will give kids a chance to do something new; something THEY want to do.  Take it a step further and encourage your students to explore their communities.  Meet new people.  Build something.  Create.  Be kids.

This could change the face of education.  It could allow us the ability to develop and create new and engaging pedagogy that would move schools from manufacturing robots using synthetic learning methods to community centers that would capture imagination and inspire kids to create.  We could capture the magic of organic learning using methods like the open source classroom

Who's with me?  If we're serious about making our schools better, simple tweaking is not the answer.  We need to roll up our sleeves and start thinking outside the box.  Let's see if we can start a grass-roots movement to revolutionize our educational system by giving kids the precious gift of freedomIf you're in, post a comment below.  

Also, share this post with as many people as you can.  Email the link.  Join the Facebook Group.  Post it on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.  Share on Del.icio.us.  Vote for it on Reddit.  Blog about it.  Print it out and give it to your fellow teachers, administrators, and classmates.  Students- print it out and give it to your teachers and friends.  Parents- give it to your kids' teachers and share it at PTA meetings and booster clubs.  Send it to your local newspapers and television stations.  Digg it.  Vote for it on Stumble Upon.  Post it on forums and message boards.  Run through the streets and scream from the rooftops.  Do what you can to get the word out.

For more information on the topic, check out these resources:

8 comments:

  1. Psst . . . I'll let you in on a secret.

    The homeschool community (most of us anyway)has known this for decades.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jason,

    Thanks for sharing this with us. As I have written, homework is overrated:
    http://technologyinclass.com/blog/2010/10/01/homework-is-overrated/

    My students work hard while in class. The most I have them do outside of class (besides a long term project) is read, read, read.

    Ben@TIC

    PS, I grew up in GR. Your students are lucky to have you as a teacher!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is excellent. I will link to you from my blog and I hope you will do the same:

    Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools

    ReplyDelete
  4. Rumpleteasermom- I've been looking closely at homeschoolers... you guys can teach us a lot. Unfortunately, not too many of my peers see the value.

    Ben- added to blogroll! What school district?

    FedUpMom- added to blogroll! Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jason:

    I love the running anecdote/analogy. I know kids as young as 10 or 11 who are overwhelmed by both homework *and* a crazy running regime—the latter enforced by overzealous running parents who hire personal trainers for their young kids so they can win at elementary cross country meets!

    I live in Toronto, and though our board's newish homework policy is sane, it is not always adhered to. (I reviewed the policy last spring on Stophomework.) So even here, the struggle against excessive homework continues.

    Thanks for a great post. I tweeted a link to it, and I will add you to my blogroll as well.

    ReplyDelete
  6. OK the no-homework week is an attention catcher. But you need to write an article about how to deal with the day, every day of the year; and how to deal with exams, which are arranged according to assumptions we don't necessarily agree with, but, likely, not in our power to immediately change.
    Want to exchange ideas? I'd love to. Send me email.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Amen, though I was fortunate enough to go to a school where homework wasn't that important and I was good enough at test-taking that even though I was terrible at doing homework my test scores more than made up for it.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This is really amazing and I can totally relate. But what about teachers that give students even more homework after the "1 week break" so as to compensate for the amount of time lost that could have been used to do extra practice instead? Wouldn't this 1 week break be redundant, or even more so detrimental, forcing students to cramp more homework into a limited time frame.
    This issue of too much homework really needs to be solved but there are just too many interests at stake (e.g parents, teachers)

    ReplyDelete